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Gatekeeping in Math: Dispelling the Myth of Placement & Advancement Exams

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July 21st, 2016

Traditionally, test scores have been used to place students into an accelerated or advanced math pathway.

Whether they’re in middle school or high school, students had to achieve certain scores on a series of common benchmarks or one one-off placements and readiness exams to be placed in the proper programs. The exams, created and administered by school districts, seemed to lend simplicity and clarity to the process.

Now, we have access to other data like state assessments and teacher observations. This evidence could paint a better, richer picture of a student’s capabilities.

For teachers, this may cause a dilemma. On one hand, they want to make sure that placements aren’t holding back students from classes where they could potentially excel. At the same time, they want to avoid setting them up for failure.

How can teachers find a middle ground and measure readiness for all students in their given math course?

The key to proper math course placement begins with building an effective assessment system. This system would require administrators and teachers to use multiple measures to determine overall student learning.

These measures should consist of quantitative results, which are usually obtained from exam scores, and qualitative results, which could be obtained from teacher observations or discussions with students about their learning needs and performance.

Let’s take a look at both aspects of these measures in greater detail.

The Quantitative Measure

Regarding quantitative results (based around exams), teachers should routinely ask themselves:

  • Are my tests fair and accurate?
  • Are the results of my student consistent across various assessments?
  • Am I properly measuring student learning?

Based on our research, it’s possible to build a quantitative measure that is fair and effectively measures student mathematical readiness. For instance, when groups of teachers are working together to create common assessments, they can routinely compare each individual student result on teacher-created exams to the same student result on an external assessment.

This type of correlation analysis, built upon teacher reflection and quantitative data analysis, naturally builds in a multiple-measure assessment approach. Teachers would be using two measurements, a teacher-created exam and a research-based exam, to better determine each student’s mathematical readiness.

Students will benefit by more accurate evaluations on a quantitative basis, which can result in accelerated or advanced math course placements.

The Qualitative Measure

Qualitative evidence, while difficult to measure, is an important aspect of the discussion.

A lone score on a placement exam is not enough evidence to suggest if a student is ready to advance. Qualitative information such as emotional behavior, learning styles and study habits provide key insights in diagnosing student performance, and needs to be considered along with quantitative data.

To begin with this measure, teachers and administrators need to engage in open and honest conversations. The education team should be addressing questions like:

  • Are the “gates of success” set up too high?
  • Does the student have the skills to overcome difficulties?
  • Are we excluding students from accelerated pathways, in spite of proof regarding their proficiency and/or drive to succeed in the next course?
  • If the student is performing well on exams, is he or she mature enough to absorb the content in a faster-paced pathway?

It’s vital teachers and administrators have a dialogue around these qualitative measures. It’s in these discussions that the barriers and limitations around the quantitative measures can be exposed and, perhaps, removed to facilitate student achievement.

Final Thoughts

Overall, figuring out how to properly place students in a math course or pathway is possible with the right assessment system. It requires teachers and administrators to diligently assess the fairness of teacher-created exams, while engaging in conversations around what makes a complete student.

This post was written with insight and contributions from Gregory Duran of San Ramon School District. 


Illuminate Education is a provider of educational technology and services offering innovative data, assessment and student information solutions. Serving K-12 schools, our cloud-based software and services currently assist more than 1,600 school districts in promoting student achievement and success.

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